Don't jump to the conclusion that this is another music diary by Dumbo. We'll discuss the book that this diary is about in a moment. But first, here is the Renaissance song (ayre) that Philip K. Dick's classic science fiction novel is named after.
Flow My Tears, by John Dowland. Valeria Mignaco, Alfonso Marin.
Flow, my tears, fall from your springs!
Exiled for ever, let me mourn;
Where night's black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn.
Down vain lights, shine you no more!
No nights are dark enough for those
That in despair their lost fortunes deplore.
Light doth but shame disclose.
Never may my woes be relieved,
Since pity is fled;
And tears and sighs and groans my weary days
Of all joys have deprived.
From the highest spire of contentment
My fortune is thrown;
And fear and grief and pain for my deserts
Are my hopes, since hope is gone.
Hark! you shadows that in darkness dwell,
Learn to contemn light
Happy, happy they that in hell
Feel not the world's despite.
Very sad music. Wiki tells us that this song was "probably the most widely known English song of the early 17th century." You can imagine John Dowland as the Elvis of his day -- an Elvis with an Elizabethan neck ruff rather than sideburns. Pop star fashions change, I guess.
I've actually forgotten when I first read Philip K. Dick's novel, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. I think it was about 1979-ish. I do remember that I gave away many copies of it to friends, eager to find just one that had the same reactions that I had to it. For a long time, I was a real Dick-head. I loved PKD. Perhaps one reason for that is that I didn't know anybody as crazy about him as I was. And that made him mine. I was his champion, a one-man Philip K. Dick crusade. His growing popularity, however, ruined that for me, and I began to move on to other things.
He has been an enduring influence for me through some of the ideas and themes of his novels and short stories. Oh, he's quite entertaining, but entertainment is one thing. Provoking thought, that's another.
Philip K. Dick's novels, including the book today, remind me of this famous 2400 year old Chinese poem by Zhuangzi:
iOnce Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But he didn't know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. Between Zhuangzi and a butterfly there must be some distinction! This is called the Transformation of Things. (2, tr. Burton Watson 1968:49)I'm going to refer back to this poem several times in this diary. I remember first hearing this on an episode of the old TV show Kung Fu back in the early 70s. My reaction at the time, "Probably profound, but, eh, kind of hippy-dippy." It did create a reaction though because I love puzzles. There's a puzzle in there that becomes more intriguing the more you think about it.
The premise of Dick's novel, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (Flow for short, from now on) is as follows. Jason Taverner, a pop star TV icon of some different but not very different time in the future awakes one day to find out that his identity has disappeared. Nobody knows him. There is no record of his ever having existed. And this puts him in some danger because his time and world is a bit of a fascist state, more like Terry Gilliam's Brazil than 1984. A pleasant place to be when you are SOMEBODY. Not so pleasant when you are nobody. Solving the problem of recovering his identity consumes most of the rest of the novel.
Jason Taverner a rotten guy. This is rather typical in Philip K. Dick's novels. He likes imperfect characters. He's not evil, but he is a schmuck, and he only dimly realizes it.
From the first page, a couple of paragraphs in:
"Do you realize what power you have?" Al Bliss, their business agent, said to Jason, coming up close--too close as always--to him. "Thirty million people saw you zip up your fly tonight. That's a record of sorts."So there's actually something gratifying in seeing him brought low.
"I zip up my fly every week," Jason said. "It's my trademark. Or don't you catch the show?"
"But thirty million," Bliss said, his round, florid face spotted with drops of perspiration. "Think of it. And then there's the residuals."
Jason said crisply, "I'll be dead before the residuals on this show pay off. Thank God."
"You'll probably be dead tonight," Heather said, "with all those fans of yours packed in outside there. Just waiting to rip you into little tiny squares like so many postage stamps."
"Some of them are your fans, Miss Hart," Al Bliss said, in his doglike panting voice.
"God damn them," Heather said harshly. "Why don't they go away? Aren't they breaking some law, loitering or something?"
The premise, so set up, may be eerie in one way, but it's a comfortable eeriness. "I've seen episodes like this on the Twilight Zone," you say. Intriguing and familiar. We feel we know how this kind of story goes. It should be entertaining.
Philip K. Dick will destroy your expectations. Yes, that is the premise, the format of the story. But there's a certain special kind of contempt in Dick's writing, contempt for the reader, the publisher, the genre's limitations. I can imagine Dick saying to himself, "Yeah, here we go. I'm going to write another Twilight-Zoneish story. Whatever the little bastards want. Maybe I can still have some fun with this."
The first indication that the story isn't going to follow the normal pattern is when he meets a girl, Kathy, who is part of a counterfeit ID selling ring. She also is a fink for the police, ratting out subversives. It's just part of her job, and she tells him that up front because she falls in love with him in an absurdly short time. She offers to not turn him in if he'll go back to her place and make love to her.
"I would never turn you in. I love you."His reaction to Kathy, as it develops, is one of veiled but mostly-polite contempt. He's in a fix and he needs help, so if he has to play along with her loopy crush, fine, but he resents it and considers her beneath him. She just doesn't know she's beneath him. Because nobody knows who he is. Kathy is special, however, in that she believes his story, that he is a celebrity, one who has vanished from the world history through some spooky means. That SHOULD make her key to the story.
"You've known me perhaps five hours. Not even that."
"But I can always tell." Her tone, her expression, both were firm. And deeply solemn.
"You're not even sure who I am!"
Kathy said, "I'm never sure who anybody is."
He learns that Kathy may be mentally ill (something reinforced when she has a total meltdown in a public restaurant.) Her conversations with him that at first helped set up the familiar Twilight-Zone spooky atmosphere become more disjointed and more just plain real world disturbed.
Kathy said, "You're more magnetic than Jack. He's magnetic, but you're so much, much more. Maybe after meeting you I couldn't really love him again. Or do you think a person can love two people equally, but in different ways? My therapy group says no, that I have to choose. They say that's one of the basic aspects of life. See, this has come up before; I've met several men more magnetic than Jack . . . but none of them as magnetic as you. Now I really don't know what to do. It's very difficult to decide such things because there's no one you can talk to: no one understands. You have to go through it alone, and sometimes you choose wrong. Like, what if I choose you over Jack and then he comes back and I don't give a shit about him; what then? How is he going to feel? That's important, but it's also important how I feel. If I like you or someone like you better than him, then I have to act it out, as our therapy group puts it. Did you know I was in a psychiatric hospital for eight weeks? Morningside Mental Hygiene Relations in Atherton. My folks paid for it. It cost a fortune because for some reason we weren't eligible for community or federal aid. Anyhow, I learned a lot about myself and I made a whole lot of friends, there. Most of the people I truly know I met at Morningside. Of course, when I originally met them back then I had the delusion that they were famous people like Mickey Quinn and Arlene Howe. You know--celebrities. Like you."And here we have one of the real keys to the story, although it is fleeting. Jason Taverner hasn't fallen through a Twilight Zone portal. The nature of reality itself is being questioned in interesting ways, much more interesting ways than the usual scifi schtick. Is Taverner having a nightmare? Or is Taverner a prisoner in somebody else's nightmare? Could it be as simple as that, a nightmare, like the man Zhuangzi dreaming himself a butterfly?
He said, "I know both Quinn and Howe, and you haven't missed anything."
Scrutinizing him, she said, "Maybe you're not a celebrity; maybe I've reverted back to my delusional period. They said I probably would, sometime. Sooner or later. Maybe it's later now."
"That," he pointed out, "would make me a hallucination of yours. Try harder; I don't feel completely real."
She laughed. But her mood remained somber. "Wouldn't that be strange if I made you up, like you just said? That if I fully recovered you'd disappear?"
"I wouldn't disappear. But I'd cease to be a celebrity."
"You already have." She raised her head, confronted him steadily. "Maybe that's it. Why you're a celebrity that no one's ever heard of. I made you up, you're a product of my delusional mind, and now I'm becoming sane again."
I'm going to leave the story here for the moment to talk more about Philip K. Dick and the recurring themes in his novels and stories.
From a speech Dick delivered, How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later:
I will tell you what interests me, what I consider important. I can't claim to be an authority on anything, but I can honestly say that certain matters absolutely fascinate me, and that I write about them all the time. The two basic topics which fascinate me are "What is reality?" and "What constitutes the authentic human being?" Over the twenty-seven years in which I have published novels and stories I have investigated these two interrelated topics over and over again. I consider them important topics. What are we? What is it which surrounds us, that we call the not-me, or the empirical or phenomenal world?A lot of people tune out at this point, the way they tuned out in Intro to Phil 101, the way I, as a kid, was intrigued but also dismissed the Zhuangzi poem as dippiness. You have to be at a point in your life when you are ready to find things like this interesting.
Not everybody gets there. I'm not sure that's a bad thing, either. Just a thing.
When I went back to college and took Calculus II in school, I had a wide-ranging talk after class with the teacher in which he commented on things he still had trouble grasping. One was the mathematical concept of infinity. He said that he still gets stuck on it, trying to grasp it. I couldn't say I felt the same way about infinity anymore... but I knew very well what it was like to go off the deep end trying to grasp something forever out of reach.
My first exposure to the mathematical concept of infinity was when I was about nine, I think. My brother explained it to me. Infinity was greater than any number, he told me. That seemed unlikely. I wasn't very good at multiplication or division, but I did understand addition quite well. Whatever number you can think of, there's always at least one number greater than that one that you can get by adding one to it. And another by adding one to that. Forever. Never an end to it. When I was nine, that did fascinate me. Part of me wanted to find the catch in it, because it seemed all wrong. Everything has to have an end, doesn't it? Everything we encounter in life (or that I had encountered by nine) seemed to have some kind of limit on its dimensions. So I was unwilling to just accept the concept of infinity because my brother told me about it. I had to poke and prod it. There had to be more to it.
I lost most of my interest in infinity after that. I just accepted it as a discrete concept with a utility. Trying to achieve any deeper understanding of it was a wild goose chase. Still, when that teacher told me about his personal grappling with infinity, I could understand it.
I grapple with the infinite all the time. I don't say that to boast. it's just the way I am, and to some degree, the way that teacher was, and many people are. But not everybody. I think I divide the world up into those people who are capable of going off into a trance over ideas that are too big to get a hold of, and those who are well-adjusted enough to tune that out and watch us gazers with interest or dismay. I really don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing. I could argue both ways on that.
In a taped two hour interview from 1979 that I listened to yesterday [Here], Philip K. Dick described how, in college geometry, a teacher put the problem up on the board of proving the trisection of an angle, a classic unsolved problem from the days of the ancient Greeks. Dick said that he stood up there at the board and tried one idea, then another, then another, until the teacher became exasperate and told him very loudly that it hadn't been solved by the greatest minds in thousands of years and he was quite sure young Mr. Dick wasn't going to solve it for them today at the blackboard. But he still couldn't stop thinking about it. He later failed the class.
This struck me so hard. I can remember few of the problems from geometry that I learned in high school, but I remember the one about the trisection of the angle. It stuck with me because it WAS unsolved and because it seemed like it should be solvable and it absorbed all my attention in a way the rest of the class didn't.
How funny to hear this story recounted years later by Philip K. Dick. Some of us have damaged brains that way.
This is a blessing. This is a curse. This is a blessing and a curse. In my case, I can trace it to being bipolar. I was hyperactive and a terrible behavioral problem when I was very young. My family always had somebody keep a tight watch on me because when I wasn't watched, I was as destructive as a pet raccoon. I remember that there was a large, expensive painting on a wall in the living room. It was so beautiful, I wanted to draw on it with crayons. Wisely, my parents had put it out of my reach. That didn't dissuade me, however. I built my own enormous scaffold out of miscellaneous household objects, like a lab monkey piling blocks to get a banana! I colored ALL OVER that painting. My mother was in tears. The rest of the family was too impressed to be mad. Not impressed with my drawing, mind you, but with the whole engineering of the project. Oh, I felt ashamed and like a turd. But that painting had so obsessed me, I could not resist it. Getting to that painting was a less difficult task than trisecting the angle or contemplating infinity or forming an alternative theory about the nature of reality or puzzling over whether beautiful music is eternal (my favorite type of infinity).
In Philip K. Dick's short story, The Electric Ant, he offers up the tale of a man who checks into the hospital and finds out, to his disappointment, that he is not a human, but an android. (This is all explained very brusquely because the hows and whys are not that important to Dick.) What was his "medical" problem then? It was really an engineering problem. His Reality Tape got stuck. What's that? Well, when you open his chest, you find this very long punched tape going through a small tape reader. If that gets jammed, he blacks out. At home, in a bad funk, (he is very human in all other respects) he decides to experiment on himself by altering the holes in the tape. In one experiment, he tapes over and blocks holes. As that part of the tape rolls forward, the walls of his building disappear, as do other random objects, probably corresponding to some holes or patterns on the tape. Next he tries punching extra holes in the tape. He goes out for cocktails with friends about the time the holes reach the tape reader lens, and he sees a host of weird things, like flocks of birds flying through the room.
An engineer warns him about such experimentation; if the tape were to be damaged or cut and the reader lens exposed to pure, unfiltered light, he would burn himself out. But he becomes intrigued with the idea. If a few extra holes allow him to perceive more things, what would perceiving everything be like? So he cuts the tape and waits. The end.
The most obvious parallel we can see in the story The Electric Ant is with hallucinatory drug experimentation. That's how I read it. Philip K. Dick acquired a reputation as a "psychedelic writer" during the late sixties because of his fiction. In the 1979 interview, he states that yeah, he had a big drug problem, but it was from prescription amphetamine abuse. He was writing so much -- 60 books in five years at one point, fifty pages a day -- that he needed it to just keep going. It ruined his body. Probably didn't do much good for his brain, either. He admits that he did try LSD, but only twice. The first time did nothing (and that too was my non-experience with my only exposure to it). The second, in 1964, with Sandoz prescription LSD (there was such a thing at one time, kiddies) was awful. To paraphrase him from my notes, he the landscape froze over. God was judging him as a sinner. It went on for a thousand years. He could only speak Latin, which was pissing off the girl babysitting him. The only part he actually liked was when he looked in the refrigerator and saw it was full of stalactites and stalagmites. He thought it was the most beautiful thing he ever saw. He laughed about it now but begged people not to take LSD. Or other drugs.
His anti-drug novel, Through a Scanner Darkly, which was turned into a terribly putrid partially animated film starring Keanu Reeves and Wynona Ryder, was a partly autobiographical tale about his own experiences with his friends, many of whom were addicts. It was presented in a vaguely science-fictiony form (as Flow My Tears is), the plot really an excuse for a deeper tale about damaged people and the confusion of reality in drug-damaged minds. The main character, an undercover narc, with brain damage from using drugs in his undercover role, forgets that he is playing two roles and engages in a split personality surveillance of himself. Ultimately he reports himself to the authorities, only to be surprised when they tell him that he's been bugging his own house.
... Now back to our novel.
Our protagonist, Jason Taverner, on his own after having ditched Kathy, runs into a police checkpoint and is almost discovered. After his identity passes inspection, Kathy, whom he thought he had shaken loose, shows up to say, I told you I made you a good ID. She asks him to come home with her, and he reluctantly does. There, to her dismay, is her police handler, McNulty that she informs to. He's interested in Jason Taverner, who is slowly having his ego reduced by his experiences, because in this police state, nobody should have NO record anywhere in the system, and they can't figure him out. Coming to their attention is a bad thing.
Kathy has been McNulty's informant for years. She has told Taverner many times she has to do it because they have her husband Jack in a forced labor camp.
To Kathy, McNulty said, "He's not exactly cowering. Does he know who I am?"As you read the novel, if you're used to the format, you expect the payoff at some point. Kathy is mentally ill? Well, sometimes mentally ill people, in stories like this, are more perceptive, can see things that other people can't. Maybe, you think, that's what is happening here. Her illness will become a plot device to provide some portal back to his normal world where he's a big shot celebrity. Maybe you've come to that expectation independently just reading my little review up to this point.
"Yes," Kathy said. "I--told him. Part of it."
"You told him about Jack," McNulty said. To Jason he said, "There is no Jack. She thinks so but it's a psychotic delusion. Her husband died three years ago in a quibble accident; he was never in a forced-labor camp."
"Jack is still alive," Kathy said.
"You see?" McNulty said to Jason. "She's made a pretty fair adjustment to the outside world except for this one fixed idea. It will never go away; she'll have it for the balance of her life." He shrugged. "It's a harmless idea and it keeps her going. So we've made no attempt to deal with it psychiatrically."
Nice try. We can see that Kathy has become an important character in the story. But she is not a plot device. She is a character and will soon be made totally irrelevant, as if her whole part in the story could be excised without affecting the overall form. Jason Taverner's uncomfortable relationship with this girl whom he despises and uses and also, to a lesser degree, pities, gives us an insight into his shallow nature. She moves the story along in that sense. But to my ghastly, ghastly, ghastly surprise when I read this for the first time -- she proves to be non-integral to the forward motion of the plot. It's amateurish!
Yet I've spent most of my review talking about her. Jason has used her. The police have used her. And perhaps this is too clever, but so has Philip K. Dick used her. She is discarded and no more has heard of her. You may keep waiting for her to show up and save him at the end, for something to click with her, give further reason for her prominent place in the first third of the book. But you get none. This is clearly (to me) deliberate on the author's part.
The police don't keep Jason Taverner long. They find him interesting and let him go but are secretly following him to see where he goes, what his real game is.
It's at this point in the story that we are introduced to big shot Police General Felix Buckner. Interestingly, he is a fan of John Dowland and of the song Flow My Tears, which he comments on at a few points in the book. As the novel progresses, the focus on Jason Taverner dissolves away from him and onto Buckner, who, even though he is a fascist asshole, has his own growing personal complications. For one thing, he's having an incestuous affair with his bisexual leather-clad drug addict sister, Alys. He's also in a state of deep despair over the meaning of his life that spikes at moments when he goes off into private soliloquies about Dowland's music, its importance and meaning to him. For instance, he describes John Dowland's music as "the first truly abstract music." A strange description for such a unrelievedly sad piece of music. There are, indeed, abstract aspects to Dowland's piece. If you're interested in this, you can try this youtube which exhaustively analyzes seven bars out of the middle of the piece with score illustrations. But his insistence on its abstraction, his analysis of its beauty, strikes me as a distraction. This is a man that, as we go along, declines further into a depressive meltdown. He doesn't comment on the emotions of the piece. It makes his final sobbing tears in the conclusion all the more shocking and sincere.
After Taverner's release, he is without friends, without money and he knows he is at risk of the police. What is he to do for sanctuary? He looks up old girlfriends, aging beauties who don't remember him, ones who did not become great successes, and he courts them again like a gigolo. The old saying, "Be nice to 'em on the way up because you'll meet 'em all over again on the way down," plays itself out. In the further course of the book, he transforms from egotistical schmuck into a humbler, sort-of-nicer guy with more respect for others. The people that he used to call "the ordinaries" before his fall.
The conclusion for Jason Taverner comes as an anti-climax, and that's often the case with Philip K. Dick. They are sometimes insulting to the intelligence.
In this case, Jason finally meets somebody, through happenstance who knows him. It's Felix's incestuous twin sister, Alys. She picks him up and takes him back to hers and Felix's place (Felix doesn't know yet). On the way, she puts some Jason Taverner music on the music player and tells him what a big fan of him and his show she has been. For years. Jason is excited. Somebody knows me? Maybe I'm a real person again! Having been humbled, he doesn't press his questioning too quickly or aggressively.
"Okay," Alys said reasonably, undaunted. "What would you like to do? We have a good collection of Rilke and Brecht in interlinear translation discs. The other day Felix came home with a quad-and-light set of all seven Sibelius symphonies; it's very good. For dinner Emma is preparing frog's legs . . . Felix loves both frog's legs and escargot. He eats out in good French and Basque restaurants most of the time but tonight--""I want to know," Jason interrupted, "where I am."
"Can't you simply be happy?"At the Buckman house she wants to drop a drug with him that she tells him is mescaline, and he agrees. Felix trips out. As he recovers, he decides to take some of his albums with him, the only proof in the world that he exists. However, before he leaves, he sees that Alys lies dead on the floor, a skeleton clad in leather dyke bondage clothes. When he gets home, he plays the records. There is only an empty hiss on them.
His identity does return, though. Gradually. Through no effort of his own. His music starts to turn up on the jukebox. A waiter recognizes him. His ID finally shows up on the police computer system. It slowly starts to all come back. He doesn't know why. But he's happy. He's a big shot celebrity again.
But the focus of the story has moved by this point to Police General Felix Buckner. The death of his sister was the tipping point for him, and he begins to slide downhill in a way. To his credit, Dick doesn't make this as impersonal as many other parts of the story, and there's a discordant clash in its realism and compassion as we are led through Buckner's inner narrative.
So what's the catch? What's the gimmick? Why did Jason Taverner's identity suddenly stop existing, and then suddenly (actually, gradually) come back to existence in the real world? This is the point, in a classic Twilight-Zonish episode, where a scientist would step forward and makes some fatuous speech about how there are portals to alternative universes. Like the Twilight Zone episode Little Girl Lost, where a girl falls through an invisible hole in the wall into another dimension. Whatever that means.
There's a structure to this that we're familiar with. The explanation at the end is light on detail, but there's no contempt for the audience in that detail, no insult, no "You want an explanation? Here's your fucking explanation."
Alys wasn't taking mescaline. She was taking a new drug that she stole from the police, a drug that changes the time-binding of the brain. What does that mean?
Westerburg, refraining from sketching, said, "A drug such as KR-3 breaks down the brain's ability to exclude one unit of space out of another. So here versus there is lost as the brain tries to handle perception. It can't tell if an object has gone away or if it's still there. When this occurs the brain can no longer exclude alternative spatial vectors. It opens up the entire range of spatial variation. The brain can no longer tell which objects exist and which are only latent, unspatial possibilities. So as a result, competing spatial corridors are opened, into which the garbled percept system enters, and a whole new universe appears to the brain to be in the process of creation."Okay... Now what did they just say? They said that Alys Buckner took a drug that altered reality. Now we've fallen down a very silly rabbit hole.
"I see," Buckman said. But actually he did not either see or care. I only want to go home, he thought. And forget this.
"I read it a little over an hour ago," Herb Maime said. "Most of it was too technical for me to grasp. But I did notice that its effects are transitory. The brain finally reestablishes contact with the actual space-time objects that it formerly perceived."
"Right," Westerburg said, nodding. "But during the interval in which the drug is active the subject exists, or thinks he exists--"
"There's no difference," Herb said, "between the two. That's the way the drug works; it abolishes that distinction."
"Technically," Westerburg said. "But to the subject an actualized environment envelopes him, one which is alien to the former one that he always experienced, and he operates as if he had entered a new world. A world with changed aspects . . . the amount of change being determined by how great the so-to-speak distance is between the space-time world he formerly perceived and the new one he's forced to function in."
"I'm going home," Buckman said. "I can't stand any more of this." He rose to his feet. "Thanks, Westerburg," he said, automatically extending his hand to the chief deputy coroner. They shook. "Put together an abstract for me," he said to Herb Maime, "and I'll look it over in the morning." He started off, his gray topcoat over his arm. As he always carried it.
"Do you now see what happened to Taverner?" Herb said.
Halting, Buckman said, "No."
"He passed over to a universe in which he didn't exist. And we passed over with him because we're objects of his percept-system. And then when the drug wore off he passed back again. What actually locked him back here was nothing he took or didn't take but her death. So then of course his file came to us from Data Central."
Of all the ways Dick could have presented this to make it seem more plausible. Of course there are no drugs you can take that alter objective reality.
... If there is an objective reality. Ah!
Now we run into a difficult barrier akin to the barrier between people who ruminate over infinity and those who look on in disgust.
So what is real?
Philip K. Dick's book have this recurring question in them. Often his stories end like this, very often more brusquely. The gimmick of the story is incomprehensible and based on what is either a very lazy plot device or a sophisticated metaphysical argument. I'm going to proffer my opinion and say it's both.
The idea of one objective reality, something out there that exists independent of us that we all interact with us, is part of the commonsense. It's also very western. The very basis of science is reliant on this. The different framings of how we understand the real world are trivial irrelevancies, none of which have any priority over the real world itself. You drop an apple, it falls to the ground. It will do the same thing on the planet Pluto. It does the same thing if you're crazy and on LSD or the drug that Alys Buckner was taking. The structures inside your mind that you create to understand the world are vague, fuzzy, incomplete things. There's something outside ourselves.
From Philip K. Dick's speech previously linked to, he says:
It was always my hope, in writing novels and stories which asked the question "What is reality?", to someday get an answer. This was the hope of most of my readers, too. Years passed. I wrote over thirty novels and over a hundred stories, and still I could not figure out what was real. One day a girl college student in Canada asked me to define reality for her, for a paper she was writing for her philosophy class. She wanted a one-sentence answer. I thought about it and finally said, "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." That's all I could come up with. That was back in 1972. Since then I haven't been able to define reality any more lucidly.I've spent some navel-gazing time of my own on the subject. What's the difference between reality and fantasy.
But the problem is a real one, not a mere intellectual game. Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups—and the electronic hardware exists by which to deliver these pseudo-worlds right into the heads of the reader, the viewer, the listener. Sometimes when I watch my eleven-year-old daughter watch TV, I wonder what she is being taught. The problem of miscuing; consider that. A TV program produced for adults is viewed by a small child. Half of what is said and done in the TV drama is probably misunderstood by the child. Maybe it's all misunderstood. And the thing is, Just how authentic is the information anyhow, even if the child correctly understood it? What is the relationship between the average TV situation comedy to reality? What about the cop shows? Cars are continually swerving out of control, crashing, and catching fire. The police are always good and they always win. Do not ignore that point: The police always win. What a lesson that is. You should not fight authority, and even if you do, you will lose. The message here is, Be passive. And—cooperate. If Officer Baretta asks you for information, give it to him, because Officer Beratta is a good man and to be trusted. He loves you, and you should love him.
So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing. It is my job to create universes, as the basis of one novel after another. And I have to build them in such a way that they do not fall apart two days later.
Bills are real. They don't go away on their own. I wish they did. That's a profoundly real thing. They're also unpleasant.
If I'm having a nightmare about being a butterfly or a fugitive in a police state, I can try to imagine something else. Even when I'm dreaming a dream that seems out of my control, there's a lack of consistency. I start to drive a car and then later get off of a bicycle. The reality that I deal with has persistence, like the bills, and consistency, like apples always falling. And that's my perception of it.
There's another way of viewing all this, too, one that is often labeled as Eastern, although that confuses matters. This one says that there may be this thing out there that is common to us all that we are calling reality, but we never really interact with that. We're not capable of it. It's the structures and frameworks within our mind that we used to understand this reality that we deal with. The structures in our minds, things like our belief that apples always fall down and that bad politicians always lose, can be flawed and not work. The scientific method tells us that when that happens, we should revise our mental structures and frameworks and try again, in order to understand external reality because it never changes.
This may not be the big distinction that we act as if it is. There may be multiple ways of describing the same events that are consistent with all the information and yet inconsistent with each other. When that happens, who is right? If you believe there is one objective reality, then two frameworks for explaining the same reality cannot be both right. There has to be some distinction. What if there's no way to distinguish?
When I was in college, I was a paid research assistant for one of the professors in the area of computer science and AI. We worked with something called modal logic. One of the principles of modal logic is that instead of just having a bunch of facts asserted like:
All men are mortal
Socrates is a man
Therefore, Socrates is mortal,
we would instead have agents who asserted propositions. Agent 1 might say All men are mortal. Agent 2 might say Socrates is a man. Agent 3 might hear all this and say, aha, Socrates is mortal! The important point here is that different agents have different information that the others may not have. It made for some interesting puzzles.
Here's an example I invented. We're at the Soup Nazi's, ordering soup, and I draw three numbers from the next-customer ticket slip. I shuffle them and pass them out to my three friends, Al, Bob, and Charlie.
Al says: I know that I'm going before Bob.
Bob says: You're lying.
Charlie says: I know that I'm going before Bob.
One of these guys always lies, and two always tell the truth. What numbers must they have? (Answer: Al has 3, Bob has 5, Charlie has 4. Al was lying. Work it out yourself).
One of the premises of modal logic is that the statements made by agents are always true. I kind of like liar's poker type puzzles, though. What if they can lie? We weren't allowed to delve into that in too much depth because that just wasn't part of the game as it's defined. Oh well.
But I didn't want to drop it. What if we had a set of inconsistent facts and we had to choose which ones we wanted to believe and which ones we didn't without trying to resolve everything? Let's call that an inconsistent database. The normal rules of logic say that if you have one false premise in your system of facts, the whole system breaks down. For instance:
2+2 = 5
So 4 = 5
So 1 must equal 2 (when you subtract 3 from each side).
The Pope and I are two people.
Therefore we are one person.
Therefore I am the Pope.
You can't get anywhere with a system like that. And yet, isn't that how human beings have to operate? We don't have the luxury of spitting out the message "Stop! Runtime error!" when somebody tells us something that doesn't fit in with what other people have told us. We accept what they tell us provisionally, putting it under a type of quarantine but keeping it for later review, while lowering our confidence in other facts we have learned that might contradict it. We pick and choose what we believe and willingly try out different interpretations when we feel like it to see if we get more interesting results.
That's kind of how a murder mystery works, if you think about it. A number of witnesses step forward and offer conflicting testimony. The first time you have a contradiction, you can't really say, Aha! You're a liar! It could have been somebody else who lied first. You assemble together different subsets of the testimony and come up with multiple theories about what might have happened.
In this view, the perception of reality is a less solid and unyielding than before. It doesn't negate the idea of an objective external reality. It just puts emphasis on the usefulness of conflicting interpretations of reality and postpones the need to resolve all conflicts.
Philip K. Dick's realities are fuzzier than even this though, because he makes identity fuzzier than is allowed by the commonsense. (Note that I say THE commonsense, because commonsense is really a body of commonly held half-true knowledge that is part of the working BIOS system of our daily lives.)
Identity is a fuzzy thing. It's not anywhere as clearly definable as the laws of apples-must-fall-down. There's a great body of commonsense about what makes you YOU and it's all very relative. If Zhuangzi dreams he's a butterfly, or if the buttefly dreams he's Zhuangzi, there really may be no determination which is which.
I'm going to get into some spacy science and philosophy that Philip K. Dick might not have really had in mind, but it's influenced my thought.
Let's start with Everett's Multiple World Interpretation of quantum mechanics. This freaks people out the first time they hear it. Every time a sub-atomic particle decays, it splits our universe creating an alternate history. One where the particle decayed, one where the particle didn't. According to this, when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, there was one alternate history created where the bomb was a dud and everybody lived. Yay.
Think I'm making this shit up because I'm hippy-dippy and used to smoke a lot of weed while listening to Pink Floyd?
The many-worlds interpretation is an interpretation of quantum mechanics that asserts the objective reality of the universal wavefunction, but denies the actuality of wavefunction collapse. Many-worlds implies that all possible alternative histories and futures are real, each representing an actual "world" (or "universe"). It is also referred to as MWI, the relative state formulation, the Everett interpretation, the theory of the universal wavefunction, many-universes interpretation, or just many-worlds.This is probably too whacked out for some people to grasp. Usually when I talk about MWI with people, they look at me funny. Maybe you're giving me funny looks now. I'll try not to imagine that. But as wikipedia says, THIS IS MAINSTREAM PHYSICS.
MWI is one of many multiverse hypotheses in physics and philosophy. It is currently considered a mainstream interpretation along with the other decoherence interpretations and the Copenhagen interpretation.
The implication of this is that everything that ever could have plausibly happened did happen in some other history, some other universe.
How many yous are you, then? According to this theory, there are a gazillion different versions of yous in different histories. There may be no interaction possible with those other histories (I kind of hope not, to be honest. That would be too spooky). But the simple existence of those other yous out there is a great deal to grasp. And infinity of yous. Something to really navel-gaze about. That girlfriend who turned you down for the prom? In another universe, she had a quantum brain fart and said yes. And it's [fanfare, please] MAINSTREAM SCIENCE.
Going forward from there, there's another theory of science picking up street cred called the Ensemble of Universes theory, one of the published theories to explain how our universe got to be THIS way instead of some other way. The Ensemble theory says that every universe that could have logically happened, does happen. By this theory, there is a two-dimensional universe, for instance, like the one in Flatland. The physics of it aren't as interesting as ours and probably don't give opportunities for life to arise, but if you can theorize it without making any mistakes, it exists. IT EXISTS BECAUSE IT'S A THEORY.
Now that's a weird idea that takes a lot of grappling with. Something exists because it's a theory? How the Hell does that work?
We come back to Zhuangzi. If a complete theory of a universe would be able to provide a full description of the world you live in and somebody like you, somebody that would live out his whole life (theoretically speaking) from birth to grave, and have the same deep thoughts about MWI and Philip K. Dick and Ensembles, and question his own existence... How would he know that he was just a theoretical construct? He wouldn't know. There would be no distinction possible.
"Oh, but I'm real! I'm in control! I am the one thinking about HIM, not him thinking about me!" So might have said the butterfly! This is a difficult idea to process without blinking a couple of times and fixing your cuffs. But if there's no distinction between you and the theoretical you, then this may just be bourgeois resistance on your part. You may have romanticized the stability of your existence. You need better reasons than that.
So now we have made real not just all alternative histories of how you might have led your life, of the history of the world, but now we have an infinity of theoretical universes possible in which physics is different. Your resistance to this idea, if it is grounded in commonsense, isn't as justifiable as the argument that your Cable TV bill is real.
I will ratchet up the metaphysical mindfuck one extra notch with the creme de la creme, Modal Realism, the philosophy of David Kellogg Lewis. This generates a lot of hostility in some people, including Kripke, the guy who helped develop (or maybe did it on his own, I don't know) the basis of modal logic, which I described above. Modal Realism is:
Modal realism is the view, notably propounded by David Kellogg Lewis, that all possible worlds are as real as the actual world. It is based on the following tenets: possible worlds exist; possible worlds are not different in kind from the actual world; possible worlds are irreducible entities; the term actual in actual world is indexical, i.e. any subject can declare their world to be the actual one, much as they label the place they are "here" and the time they are "now".We're in the realm of philosophy now. So there are no issues of testability possible here. If I assert that possible worlds exist even without resorting to quantum theory or Ensemble theory, Modal Realism says, far out, nobody can disprove it, and it's perfectly sound.
My own opinion: If this is a sound theory, but a theory that conflicts with other sound theories that seem to be compatible with our observable universe, then I guess you say poTAYto and I say poTAHto. This must be very frustrating for anybody who clings to Objectivist reality.
Buckner wants to have Taverner killed. He's on the verge of doing it himself, but he lacks the energy. He leaves it to a subordinate and drives home, listening to Dowland and musing on it.
I think I'll quit here. I won't leave the ending as a surprise out of any respect for your sensibilities about spoilers. Any book that's not worth reading after you hear the ending is either a bad book or you're a bad reader. Luke blows up the Deathstar. Still a great movie!
Thank you to Diane for letting me write all this junk. And please check out my Thursday Classical Music series, which comes out every Thursday evening. If I manage to get it out on time, there should be a diary from yesterday Thursday (today by my time) available right now about the world's oldest Holocaust survivor, a 104 year old woman that played concert piano in Terazin concentration camp.